CircusFest, The Roundhouse, London; 6th April 2014
‘La Meute‘ is a man’s world. A world of friendly competition with no women around to turn things nasty. It’s serious machismo, but of a softer, more relaxed sort than we females are used to seeing. Not just accomplished acrobats, the eponymous ‘pack’ (Julien Auger, Thibaut Brignier, Mathieu Lagaillarde, Sidney Pin, Arnau Serra Vila and Bahoz Temaux) are also musicians and – as it later transpires – skilled actors.
With the exception of perhaps Julien Auger, they are not showmen here, and we are invited to witness their world rather engage in it. The loose vibe of a turkish bath or gymnasium that comes from the warm lighting, sparse utilitarian set, and draped towelling costumes, emphasising a male only ‘safe space’, away from the complicating female influence. The risks they take are with their bodies; the precisely honed acrobatic feats that elicit gasps and winces from the audience, and the precarious positions they put themselves into.
With seeming nonchalance, the men play chicken with the forces of gravity, mass and speed; like the lion tamers of old, they clearly respect the dangers presented by their specially adapted russian swing, but remain unafraid; their trick cycling is made to look as if anybody could do the same with ease; they know everything that could go wrong in their acrobatics, and have learnt to play on those possibilities.
The humour is that of the silent movie, with slapstick, musical flourishes, and a constant tugging at their towelling loincloths. An apparent drama is little more than another game, meant to unsettle us, and perhaps remind us of the real risks inherent in the heavy wooden and steel equipment. The physical skill levels and strength are immense, but I find myself questioning the purpose of the show; they are clearly not here purely ‘to entertain us’, but I leave with nothing more in my head than I when entered. I have watched their intimate world for over an hour, but emerged unchanged.
The relationship the men have onstage speaks of unity, and a tangible trust that goes deeper than I’ve ever witnessed in a circus show before (which is saying something). The evocative a cappella singing – perhaps Kurdish, fitting with Temaux’s tembûr – that announces the arrival and departure of the troupe is another indicator of their bond and, although their boy’s club bare-bottomed punchline feels unnecessary and puerile, the return costumes for the curtain call give me a moment of true joy. Here, differences are unimportant; what matters is ‘the pack’.